I begin this review of Nitin Sawant’s novella ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ with my least favourite quote from the book:
‘Different regions here (in Southern India) had a different word for it – veshti, mundu, panche and so on. But for us non-South Indians who can’t fathom the subtle differences, every flowing waist-cloth around a male loin was just a lungi.’
Least favourite because it takes me to that sari shop in Ernakulum where, for lack of any knowledge about this piece of clothing, I carelessly called a mundu a lungi, much to the chagrin of three, yes three, floor boys who held the beautiful cream and golden piece high up like a palanquin and declared, with a pinch of pride, that this is a mundu. They pointed to a blue checkered pile, called it lungi and went away to cater to more discerning customers. Whether I regained my courage enough to buy a sari is a story not to be told. But the quirky title of the book took me back to that evening, where I was the very Lucifer raising Lungis to Godhead. Thankfully for Nitin, the book is doing no such thing. Or is it?
The protagonist of this sparsely populated novella is an urban man whose ‘life has gotten so dull that on a silent night I could hear my soul rust’. Someone suggests weekend travel to relax that corporate neck of his and ‘a series of enchanted escapades’ begin. This book is about one such trip to an unpronounceable village so un-touristy that even the bus conductor cannot understand why ‘saar’ is going there, if not to buy flowers or start a temple! To tell you more about what unfolds between the city-slicker, a priest’s boy, lotuses in the middle of the pond, Luganar’s smell, a black thread and the holy mound in the jungle would be telling too much. So, no more about it!
Let's see what I liked and did not about this novella.
Let's see what I liked and did not about this novella.
The Story – A Pocket-sized Rocket
'Lucifer’s Lungi’ is only 100 pages of a tiny sized book (okay, give or take five pages). And what a punch it packs! I usually don’t overdo talk of pace of a novel/novella, for each reader reads at his own comfortable speed – defined by eye-sight, time of day, number of children at home, degree of exploitative bosses, electricity office’s mercy, etc, and with such external factors bearing upon our minds, the story’s speed can often be misjudged as our own. But ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ amazed me with how fast it flew, not just because it is short but also because Nitin seems to have put in exactly the amount of incidences and words around those incidences as would make for a tight, speedy yet unhurried read. I began at gear four and ended my journey at five, and at no point was I over-speeding.
Apart from the pace, the story itself is interesting and a very creative way of making Atheism “meet” Theism at a crossroad, literally! The intrigue is on when the bus conductor pronounces ‘Don’t see people like you going down there, saar …’ for a village which is as much hidden from the readers’ view as revealed at this point in the beginning of the book. (Sue the North Indian in me, but I found the setting of the book exotic.) A stinking mystery is created around this lake-centered temple town producing flowers by the truck-loads and we are left wondering if a murder too is following close behind the heels of this ‘coughing misery’ roadways bus.
Further, stray vernacular words like ‘Apattu’ (hazardous) to ‘Tondaravu’ (trouble) are murmured around the English-speaking narrator at points which keep our ears attentive, imaging anything from angry Gods to ghosts, or even a left-over lungi at the border of the town a page later, or even sooner. Most chapters end with vague statements like ‘This stinking thing can kill you, saar’ and keep the readers’ imagination working over-time, till and even beyond the grand finale night; for nights after all are 'the first mind-altering drug that ever got made’.
If I could, I would delete the last but final sentence from this book. That’s all!
The Idea behind the Story – inviting Tondaravu, no doubt!
Nitin Sawant’s narrator carries a ‘No Entry sign on my spiritual street’ and likes to believe he is a man of reason and rationality over religion. Little wonder then, that taking shelter in a temple and making friends with the priest, Sarvana his boy (who is ‘going to defend the shining honour of his entire upbringing’) and other villagers comes with a pre-set rider. It is through various such God-no God discussions (and encounters!) that Nitin pours into the novel scenes of Atheism versus Theism in shades ranging from horror to comic, and then their revisions too. Picture this, in a most holy setting:
‘I looked up at the deity. My God, was he angry or what? If only looks could kill, then he was already armed enough … the scowl on his face was indeed carved in stone' was said for Luganar and a little later in the book the good God hears this from him – 'I could imagine why well-educated guys like Sarvana still believed more in Palayar than science. This Big Guy could evoke that kind of confidence. I guess that’s what deity idols in most temples do – give us confidence. It I had a favour to ask, this is exactly the kind of idol that I would ask from.' This self-talk continues throughout to culminate in a better understanding of the phenomenon of belief, for it is ‘always easier to hang on to some convenient make-believe truth than to search for an absolute one.’
While the arguments used by the narrator or the villagers to support their beliefs are not novel enough to be codified in the next journal on religion and spirituality, their presentation through discussions or slapstick comedy are wonderfully entertaining, as is the mumbo-jumbo-jumble-up of legends and religions from across the world (you too must be wondering why Lucifer is wearing a lungi!). Eventually, the discussion reaches the dangerous border of the village and 30 minutes of horrific, action-packed, life-changing experiences which leave the narrator facing truth naked and naked before his eyes, as a ‘free man’ but one whose adrenaline had a field
day night. But for more, read the book.
Language maketh a writer, and his narrator, alas!
I am no grammar-arian, but I do believe that when you choose a language to write in you need to be very careful about basic grammar. A lot of us get turned off at the first drunken bout of tenses or articles going missing. To err is human, but to err and err again? From the “po-logue” to the last sentence, the narrative carrier mistakes which slipped through the writer's and editor's eyes. Some examples, apart from the persistently strange (though not incorrect) use of ‘I’d’ –
‘Night after night I would sit in my hotel balcony and stare vacuously in the emptiness of the night.’
‘The place practically grows up on you’
‘The boy … leading me around the temple to the backside.’
‘We do, sometimes. In holidays or when friends come over.’
Then, the narrator uses slang most of the time. While I did think the ‘kinda’ and ‘Gawd’ helped in places to show his mind’s nonchalance towards all things religious and inexplicable and add comic effect to the scenes of action, an over dose made me wonder if it was required at all. Do we who stay in cities talk (and think) in this manner alone? What could have been used as a technique to endear us to this young narrator makes him seem too casual, careless and might I say, shallow in some very significant places. Also, while his mind matures over the day he spends in the village enough to re-examine his ideas once set in stone, his language fails to compliment it. I think I would have surely fallen in love with this ‘guy’ if only he had not called the bus conductor ‘lowly’ or generalised about ‘we Indians’ in a couple of places and kept his slang in check. As a character, Sarvana came across as my favourite.
Nitin Sawant’s ‘Lucifer’s Lungi’ marks a novel(la) attempt to broach a most controversial issue with such contraries (of ease and tension, humour and horror) that the book does not disappoint despite the shortcomings I speak about. I also think it can be made into a wonderful short story for children, if we adults would like them to read about this man’s journey to a very holy town and hear him say ‘Ironical, isn’t it? Clean stones for dirty souls …’ In the end what is affirmed is the human ability to trust and distrust and the very interesting phenomenon of how, while the Gods themselves may not be doing anything, belief in them is moving mountains, and hearts too.
Title: Lucifer's Lungi
Author: Nitin Sawant
[This review was commissioned by the publisher. All views are my own.]